War is a genre as old as the movies themselves. Some offer visceral thrills, trying to immerse you in what it means to be in battle. Others take a different tack, and are more contemplative about their subject matter.
Whatever road they take, though, great war movies are always at least a little bit about how pointless war is. That self-reflexive gaze, which blends the valor of war with its violence and horror, is what makes these movies worthy of this list, whether they’re thrilling, funny, horrific, or a little bit of all three.
Quentin Tarantino’s fascination with changing history started with Inglourious Basterds, and it may be his very best movie. Following a troop of Jewish soldiers who are tasked with hunting Nazis and collecting their scalps, the movie is remarkably tense and features at least 10 all-time great Tarantino performances.
Every sequence in Basterds is immaculate, but the best may be the prolonged conversation between an undercover British officer and a German officer in an underground bar. It’s tense, thrilling, and hilarious, all at the same time.
Steven Spielberg is an all-time, pantheon director, and Saving Private Ryan is one of several movies that could sit at the top of a list of his best movies. The film’s opening D-Day sequence is deeply harrowing, and a reminder that those who fought in World War II came back scarred, if they came back at all.
Telling the story of a squadron given the task of heading behind enemy lines to retrieve a soldier whose three brothers have already died, Saving Private Ryan is ultimately a movie about the capricious randomness of war, and how the valor and pointlessness of war can exist side by side.
A war movie that is also about what it means to grow old, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows its central character as we learn about his exploits in the Boer War and World War I, before coming to understand the way he’s viewed now that he’s a commander in World War II.
Above all else, this movie is really about love and friendship, and the way those things can be torn apart by war and conflict. By 1943, Colonel Blimp is no longer young, but the movie that shares his name suggests you would be unwise to think him a fool.
Like all the great directors, it was only a matter of time before Christopher Nolan made his war picture. What we didn’t expect, though, is that Dunkirk would be one of the most affecting movies of Nolan’s career. The film, which tells the story of the Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk and the soldiers who evacuated them, is a triumph of editing and performance.
Dunkirk proves that Nolan’s fascination with how a story is told is fundamental to the movies he makes, and can pack an incredible punch if he does it right.
Stanley Kubrick made movies in a wide variety of different genres, but the one genre he couldn’t walk away from was the war movie. Paths of Glory may secretly be the best of Kubrick’s war movies, in part because large chunks of it play like a comedy. The movie tells the story of a group of soldiers who are sent on a pointless mission, fail, and then are punished, even though everyone knew the mission was pointless.
It’s a dark, grim portrait of the bureaucracy of war, and the way men behind desks make decisions that get people killed, and refuse to be burdened with those consequences.
The oldest film on this list, Grand Illusion may be unfamiliar to some, but it’s absolutely worthy of a first look or a rewatch for those who have already seen it. The film, which was made before World War II broke out, tells the story of a group of French prisoners who form a bond with their German captors during World War I.
Ultimately, Grand Illusion is a stark reminder that the soldiers on the other side of any conflict are humans too. The trouble is, when we understand their humanity, killing them becomes much tougher.
Da 5 Bloods is a masterful look at the way war and race interact, even when the war is not being fought solely over race. The film follows five Vietnam veterans who return to the country to dig up gold they buried there decades earlier.
In melding the past and present, the film manages to be both ruminative and thrilling, in part because of the way these men have grown apart in the years since they served together. Delroy Lindo gives a ferocious performance in the lead role, playing a character filled with hurt and anger over decades of mistreatment by a government he once fought for.
Few foreign directors have a more established legacy in America than Akira Kurosawa. That’s because of the many samurai epics that Kurosawa made over the course of his career, and in part because of how good they all were.
Ran, which is adapted from King Lear and tells the story of an emperor who leaves his three sons to war over his kingdom, is among his very best movies, filled with vibrant color and plenty of brutal bloodshed. Like Lear, Ran is ultimately about the quest for power, and how polluting it is to those who seek it.
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